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The power of relationships: Reflections on social and emotional learning programmes

Danielle Pée, Independent Educational Consultant

At the beginning of the year, while I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across an interesting post from the headteacher of a school located in an affluent area on the Cornish coast. Concerned with the emotional wellbeing of his students, he set out to write a social and emotional learning (SEL) programme for children recovering from adversity, and was seeking input from his Facebook friends. While the suggestions were plentiful – yoga, mindfulness and social competence-based skills – I found it noteworthy that not one of the 25 posts mentioned the importance of loving relationships, compassionate school communities and authentic human connection.

Those Facebook suggestions mirror a dominant trend in SEL programming – a competency-based approach (Le Mare, 2011). Central to this approach is an emphasis on teaching children information and skills that are believed to cultivate positive social interactions. Research on the effectiveness of the competency-based approach is mixed. While Durlak et al’s meta-analysis (2011) identified positive outcomes on children’s social and emotional skills, behaviour and academic performance, many other studies have shown negligible or negative outcomes (Ryan and Smith, 2009). Another approach to SEL – the relational approach – focusses on the experiential learning of students and teachers, the development of interpersonal capabilities and the quality of interactions taking place within the school community (Noddings, 2012). Central to this approach is the belief that attuned and compassionate relationships are critical to fostering emotional wellbeing.

‘Although the relational approach is less common in educational settings, a growing body of research is beginning to support the idea that responsive relationships are essential for healing after all kinds of adversity.’

Although this approach is less common in educational settings, a growing body of research is beginning to support the idea that responsive relationships are essential for healing after all kinds of adversity. For example, in studying 122 participants whose homes had been severely damaged by flooding, psychologists from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte found that forming responsive relationships (that is, caring for, understanding and validating others) was the single most protective factor that guarded against developing trauma-based psychopathology after a traumatic experience (Canevello et al 2016). Overall, studies from UNC Charlotte have shown that recovering from challenges within the embrace of attuned and responsive relationships can lead not only to recovery, but to post-traumatic growth – attributes of which include a heightened sense of wisdom, an appreciation for life, a sense of gratitude, and deeper, more meaningful relationships. Love, it seems, is the fire that can burn away the veils that cloud the heart when the soul has been wounded.

When we begin to look at SEL from a relational lens, our responsibility as members of the human family is brought into sharp focus. Rather than focussing our efforts on developing competency-based programmes to ‘fix’ or ‘heal’ those that have suffered, we gain an appreciation for the magnitude of capacity required to create relationships of love, safety and emotional attunement; we feel impelled to ‘consider new ways of being with one another, of listening to each other, of dealing with differences’, and of reorganising our school culture and systems (Le Pichon, 2016). Winnicott (1987) used the powerful term ‘annihilation’ to refer to the experience of not being mirrored or seen in a relationship with another. It is unfortunate that through the experience of separation we become so aware of how much others matter.

I believe that this growing body of research needs to be weaved into the fabric of initial teacher education (ITE) programmes. A relational approach to teacher training, within a framework of community building, can and will play a significant role in facilitating collective wellbeing and creating a culture that prioritises inclusion, collaboration, and compassion. This work is as fundamental as numeracy, literacy and classroom planning.


Canevello A, Michels V and Hilaire N (2016) ‘Supporting close others’ growth after trauma: The role of responsiveness in romantic partners’ mutual posttraumatic growth’, Psychological Trauma 8: 334–342

Durlak J, Weissberg R, Dymniki A, Taylor R and Schellinger K (2011) ‘The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions’, Child Development 82(1): 405–432

Le Mare L (2011) ‘Social and emotional education in the Canadian context’, Social and emotional education: An international analysis II, Santander, Spain: Fundacion Marelino Botin

Le Pichon X (2016) ‘The fragility at the heart of humanity’, podcast transcript, Onbeing.

Noddings N (2012) ‘The caring relation in teaching’, Oxford Review of Education 38(6): 771–781

Ryan W and Smith J D (2009) ‘Antibullying programmes in schools: How effective are evaluation practices?’, Prevention Science 10(3): 248–259